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Russian state media flouts European sanctions

Days after the European Union banned Kremlin-backed news outlet RT for its role in spreading propaganda about the war in Ukraine, the Russian media organization was back in the game.

To reach Germans, a new site quickly appeared that was a replica of the now-sanctioned RT Deutsch. For Spain, multiple sites that were carbon copies of RT en Español drew in millions of Spanish-speaking readers. More than a hundred other websites — some of which were promoted by RT’s official social media accounts — also popped up to share French- and English-language content from RT, according to research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism.

The strategy allowed Russia’s prominent state media outlet to reach potentially millions of people across the 27-country bloc in direct violation of EU sanctions. That raises questions about how effective Brussels’ clampdown on Kremlin disinformation has been given RT’s ability to easily sidestep a ban that was supposed to throttle Moscow’s ability to sow distrust and dissent about the war in Eastern Europe.

Though Moscow’s agenda has struggled to catch on with Western audiences via its official state media, these outlets, which also include Sputnik, still garner large audiences around the world in an ongoing battle for people’s hearts and minds in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“Russia’s war against Ukraine is unfortunately not over,” Věra Jourová, the European Commission’s vice president for values and transparency, told POLITICO after reviewing the researchers’ findings. “Sanctions apply in full and it is for economic operators to apply them and national authorities to enforce this.”

And yet in the almost five months since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine — and more than four months since RT was officially banned across Europe — the state-backed media organization has stayed one step ahead of the bloc’s sanctions, flouting its approach by promoting its newly minted replica websites via its official social media accounts.

Vice President and Commissioner for Values and Transparency of the European Commission Věra Jourová| John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Researchers discovered 12 sites, mostly in either German or Spanish, that were exact replicas of either RT Deutsch or RT en Español, and whose IP addresses and Google analytics identifiers — technical tools used to manage the sites — were directly linked to the Kremlin-backed media organization. A further five sites also mirrored sanctioned RT sites but were not hosted on servers with ties to Moscow. A further 112 news aggregation sites published RT content alongside that of Western media organizations, most likely to generate money from online advertising.

All of these sites, as of July 19, were accessible from within the EU.

“The most likely thing is that this is a very intentional way of trying to get around the fact that they’ve been restricted,” said Jordan Wildon, senior digital methods manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “It’s a hydra’s head situation. You get rid of one thing, and they’ll try and find some way of doing something else.”

Role of social media

While many of these sites remain relatively obscure on their own, they have garnered significant traction via promotion through social media or by appearing in Google searches.

To determine how effectively RT was dodging EU sanctions, the researchers searched on Google for multiple articles associated with Ukrainian refugees from the official Kremlin outlet. They then searched again on Google for websites that published the exact same headlines as the collective 66 articles in German, Spanish, English and French that had originated from RT’s main sites.

After POLITICO contacted Google with some of the newly created RT sites, the search giant delisted these sites from appearing in search results. The company added it had taken steps to reduce the reach of Kremlin-linked media outlets, including removing them from search recommendations and stopping them from making money via online advertising.

Yet in the weeks following Europe imposing sanctions — and social media companies either demoting Russian disinformation or labeling accounts and content as affiliated with Vladimir Putin’s regime — RT was able to channel people to its newly created sites through its official social media accounts, according to the researchers.

On Twitter, for instance, RT en Español’s account, which has millions of followers, urged people to visit its new Spanish-language sites that circumvented EU sanctions. Overall, posts containing links to these affiliated sites, in four major European languages, were shared more than 450,000 times by 50,000 individual Twitter users between February and June, based on data from CrowdTangle, the social media analytics firm owned by Meta.

On Facebook, the sites also appeared in more than 1,200 public groups with a combined following of tens of millions of users, based on the researchers’ findings.

“The main amplifiers of the links were actually RT accounts, both on Facebook and on Twitter,” said Kata Balint, an analyst at the think tank and co-author of the report.

In response, Twitter said it had stopped any tweets associated with Russian state media from being amplified on its platform, and those discovered by the researchers would fall into that category — even those RT’s official accounts had promoted on the social network. Meta also said it demoted RT content across its global platform, but declined to comment further “to avoid people circumventing our systems.”

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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